Irish election could produce historic shift in government

Ireland is poised for a major shift toward more conservative government at the polls today, spurred by a financial crisis that has left it with enormous debt, a housing bust, and high unemployment.

Darren Staples/Reuters
A nun leaves a polling station after casting her vote in Dublin on Feb. 25. Europe's debt crisis was set to claim its first political scalp on Friday as voting began in an Irish election dominated by the trauma of economic collapse and the harsh path back to financial stability.

An economically devastated Ireland goes to the polls today in what many have called the most significant election since the foundation of the state. But the path back to prosperity for the benighted country will be a rocky one – and is by no means assured.

Ireland is poised for a wholesale change in government, spurred by a financial crisis that forced the country to accept the European Union's $117 billion bailout last year and left it with enormous debt, a housing bust, and high unemployment. Voter distress is running high about the country's future direction, trumping the local issues that typically dominate and likely reducing Fianna Fáil, which has ruled since 1997 and dominated as the "natural party of government" for decades, to a rump.

Small business owners unhappy

Based in an industrial park in west Dublin, Derek Nolan runs a business selling and fitting trim for cars. Mr. Nolan expresses the fears of small business owners, a key constituency in the election given that 700,000 of Ireland’s 2.1 million-strong workforce are employed in the sector.

“Trade has dropped off significantly in recent years,” he says. “People just don’t have money or access to credit anymore. Business costs are also rising: [commercial property] rates go up and now we have an extra water tax, while insurance has also gone up.”

Nolan says he has been forced to reduce workers’ wages. He wants to see the next government cut taxes.

“What I’m hoping for is that VAT [value-added tax, or sales tax] rates are lowered, but I can’t see that happening if there is a coalition government,” he says.

Until recently, a powersharing deal between the conservative Fine Gael and the left-leaning Labour Party was considered a certainty, but the late surge for Fine Gael has opened up the possibility of that rarest of beasts in Irish politics: a single-party government, perhaps propped up by non-party lawmakers.

The rise of independents, also largely leaning to the right, has been a significant feature of the election.

In all, 202 non-party candidates are running for office. Kate Bopp, running in Tipperary North, is a dark horse candidate who espouses flat taxes. She doesn’t expect to win, but says she had to run. “I kept hoping someone would emerge locally who could represent people like me, who are disillusioned, but no one did,” she says.

Not everyone is enthused by the prospect of a Fine Gael government. Fine Gael has proposed a universal and compulsory but privatized health insurance system to replace the current mix of public and private care, and is seeking to cut 30,000 public jobs, though it says it will not push for compulsory layoffs.

Graduate student Eadaoin O’Sullivan argues that the party will not represent a clear break from the past so much as an intensification of policies that will hurt vulnerable citizens. "Unlike Fianna Fáil, which promotes a watered-down republican egalitarianism, Fine Gael feels under no compunction to [support social programs]," she says.

“There is nothing to suggest that Fine Gael … would have pursued economic policies that were any different from those pursued by Fianna Fáil," she says. “Fine Gael say they see opportunity in crisis. Unfortunately for the great majority of Irish society, the opportunity they see is a business one, which has a fundamental disregard for equality, fairness, or civil society.”

The reform agenda

Ireland, which spent its first seven decades as an independent country in grinding penury, stunned the world with its sudden growth in the 1990s. But its precipitous fall from 'Celtic Tiger' stature has put the focus on fundamental questions. Alongside the familiar mantra of jobs and education, the 2011 general election campaign has been dominated by calls for political reform.

All parties – including the current Fianna Fáil government – have made political reform a central plank. The list of promises is almost endless, including abolition of the unelected upper house of parliament, the appointment to government of unelected ministers, sweeping changes to the electoral system, reducing the number of seats in parliament, and even rewriting the Constitution.

Paschal Donohoe, a Fine Gael hopeful likely to pick up a seat in Dublin Central, the constituency of Ireland’s boom-time former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, says his party will change how Irish politics works.

“We need two things,” he says. “Firstly, a political system that is smaller and more efficient. The second thing we need is a Dáil [lower house of parliament] that is more powerful and has more checks and balances.”

Labour Party finance spokeswoman Joan Burton says her party’s proposals have not had a fair hearing.

“The Labour Party has had very little newspaper support, but support on the ground is much stronger,” she says.

Ms. Burton says Fine Gael’s proposed reforms are not enough: “There’s reform and there’s reform. The reform we need is a proper cap on corporate donations and control of lobbyists. We currently have no control or even registration of lobbyists,” she says.

The sudden appearance of political reform as an issue has raised a few eyebrows, though.

"They're thrashing around looking for a way to make Irish politics work again, but these top-down reforms are doomed to failure. For a start, many of them make things worse, but they are also conscious attempts to circumvent the electorate,” says Kevin Bean, professor of Irish Studies at Britain’s University of Liverpool.

“Despite the use of the term ‘reform’, it’s really all about maintaining the concentration of power in hands of the political class,” he says.

Ms. O’Sullivan says the election is more as a change of faces than policies.

“More troubling and surprising than anything else is the abject failure of imagination on display,” she says. “At a time when everything we thought to be true has been exposed as false, a reasonable expectation would be that, at the very least, the terms of political discourse could have been widened to include some talk about what kind of society we want to live in.”

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